The Great Believers

She opened the album at the beginning, and tried to slide the papers back into the empty slots. A man named Oscar, no one she remembered, had died in 1984. A clipping about Katsu Tatami from 1986. Here was the bulletin for Terrence Robinson, Nico’s Terrence. How odd—she must have put this bulletin together herself, but she didn’t remember it. Jonathan Bird. Dwight Sumner. There were so many of them, so impossibly many.

Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers puts readers in the middle of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and simultaneously lets readers see the long-term aftermath of being caught in the middle of such a tragedy. In alternating chapters, she takes readers from past to present, raising the stakes in both storylines as we learn more about the people involved. In the 1980s, Yale Tishman, who is helping establish an art museum at Northwestern, is watching one friend after another die. And in 2015, Fiona Marcus, the sister of one of Yale’s dead friends, is trying to find her daughter, believed lost to a cult and now fled to Paris.

On the surface, this sounds like so many recent literary novels. Alternating timelines. Doomed characters. Political resonance. A sense of history. But I found this to be a cut above most such novels, many of which are perfectly serviceable without entirely pulling me in. This pulled me in. First, and perhaps most obviously, Makkai puts names, faces, personalities, memories, and lives behind the grim statistics of the AIDS crisis. The early scenes of Yale, Fiona, and their friends in the 1980s show a robust and caring found family, people who stand up for each other and take care of each other, even when they don’t always like each other.

But, as important as that is, I wouldn’t want this book to be dismissed as simply a fictional chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. Makkai pulls in stories from other eras to show that tragedy reverberates across generations. Yale spends a lot of his time with Nora, Fiona’s elderly aunt, who hopes to donate her art collection to Yale’s museum. The collection is made up of sketches and other works given to Nora by the artists she was friends with in Paris before and after World War I. This community of artists, much like the gay men of 1980s Chicago, saw one member after another die, first to war and then to PTSD. Nora is haunted by one man in particular, who never even got a chance to become known. The loss never leaves her.

In 2015, Fiona is similarly haunted by the many men she came to love, before and after her brother’s death. Fiona became sort of a community caregiver, visiting in the hospital, sometimes even taking on the power of attorney. As the book goes on and more of her memories are revealed, we learn before it even happens just how few survivors there will be.

For much of the book, this present-day narrative lacks the same sense of urgency as the 1980s story. This is one woman, chasing one daughter. Not a whole community of men dying one after another. But, especially toward the end of the book, it becomes evident how Fiona’s past brought her to the place she is, how that tragedy that began when she was still a teenager shaped her ability to mother her daughter.

There are at least two different points in the novel where characters talk about how nice it would be to have all the people one loves all together in one community, those who are dead and those who live. But I think the novel shows, in a not at all sappy or sentimental way, that the dead are always with us. For the characters in the book, they live in works of art. But they also live in how they shape us, how loving them shapes us, how losing them shapes us. The dead are never totally gone.

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Song of Solomon

Deep down in that pocket where his heart hid, he felt used. Somehow everybody was using him for something or as something. Working out some scheme of their own on him, making him the subject of their dreams of wealth, or love, or martyrdom. Everything they did seemed to be about him, yet nothing he wanted was part of it. Once he had a long talk with his father, and it ended up with his being driven further from his mother. Now he had had a confidential talk with his moth, only to discover that before he was born, before the first nerve end had formed in his mother’s womb, he was the subject of great controversy and strife. And now the one woman who claimed to love him more than life, more than her life, actually loved him more than his life, for she had spend half a year trying to relieve him of it.

I must confess that I don’t love Toni Morrison’s novels quite as much as I think I’m supposed to. I appreciated Beloved, but didn’t really get Jazz. Home is the first of her books that truly swept me away. But I keep trying, hoping for that magic that so many others experience. And I know that many people love Song of Solomon, so it seemed like a natural choice for me to try.

It was rough going at first. Milkman Dead is not an easy character to like, or to care much about, which is what really matters when it comes to book characters. He just drifts along, letting things happen to him, falling into relationships and into conflicts according to what other expect. He seems to have no will of his own. And so I spent the first half or so of this novel wondering why I was reading about this guy. The main reason I kept reading was because he was surrounded by characters with a little more oomph.

Take, for example, his aunt Pilate. Born without a navel, Pilate is a true eccentric, living life her own way, regardless of what her brother, Macon Dead, thinks of her. She stays loyal to Macon, his wife, and his children, even when they seem to see themselves as above her. Characters like Pilate, plus the general weirdness of the book, kept me reading. I wanted to figure out what was going on.

And then I started to realize that Macon’s bland passivity is part of the story. Quotes like the one at the start of this post show him as being driven by others, not developing an identity of his own. Yet he’s the center of attention. Perhaps it’s because he’s enough of a blank space that anyone can see whatever they want in him, place whatever expectations they want on him. And that’s no way for a man to live.

Eventually, Milkman is sent on a journey — and he is sent, it’s not his journey. However, it becomes his journey. As he follows his family’s path back south and backward into the past, he sheds their expectations and forms his own identity, an identity still rooted in family, but with deeper roots than those he knew. Milkman follows clues embedded in family stories to uncover where he is from, who his people are, and who he is. He sees how, over time, the stories got bent and changed, just as his grandfather’s name got changed as he journeyed north.

It’s interesting to me that the journey south is what frees Milkman. But I think it’s less about the geographical direction than the direction in time, back through his family’s history. Abandoning that history entirely left Milkman without an identity. The Dead family has sought wealth and status in Michigan but left that history behind. (It’s interesting that the person with the strongest personality, Pilate, also journeyed south at one point.)

There’s a lot more going on in this book. I was fascinated by the glimpses of magic, including the images of flight. And the life of Milkman’s sister Corinthians was a rich story in its own right. And then there are the Seven Days vigilantes. This is a rich book, in which even the names feel significant.

As I read more Morrison, I’m getting better at seeing what makes her so great. Her books are dense, and although the stories are easy enough to follow, it takes time to unearth their significance. It’s not the kind of reading I want to do every day, but it is worth doing.

I’m curious, which Toni Morrison novels would you recommend?

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What I Read This Fall: October Edition

Continuing my record of books I read while on blogging break. If you want to chat about any of these, please comment! (There are mostly taken from my Goodreads account because I did manage to make notes there in September.)

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: The central mystery in this book is ingeniously structured, with one revelation following after another so that I had to keep reading so see how it all shook out. But each character’s actions feel engineered to bring about these events, both those that led up to the tragedy and those that led up to the resolution. Many of the nuances around complex issues (mostly involving immigration, disability, and parenting) are presented, which is great, but it felt too tidy somehow, as if the characters are created as representatives of particular points of view on complex issues, rather than themselves being robust, interesting, complex people in their own right. I cared a lot less about them as people than I did about just seeing what was going to happen.

Spring by Ali Smith: In general, I don’t have a lot of patience these days for books that are mostly showcases for great writing without much plot. Ali Smith is an exception, though. I just love the way she writes about our current moment and the ways people are grappling with it. This didn’t punch me in the gut the way Autumn did, but I liked it more than I did Winter, which didn’t make much of an impression on me. It wasn’t entirely clear to me what some of the characters, especially the magical Florence, were up to, but it doesn’t feel like a book where everything is supposed to be clear.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: This story about a mixed-race (Chinese and white) family dealing with the sudden disappearance of the favorite daughter is compelling and highly emotional. But the emotional beats are too obvious to make it a great book. There’s just no subtlety to the storytelling. But, given my preference for straightforward storytelling these days, I was pretty happy to read this, even if it wasn’t entirely satisfying.

Lanny by Max Porter: It took me a while to get interested in this. The first half, which is mostly setting the scene and establishing characters, went on longer than necessary, and I began to worry that there would be little more to the book than Lanny’s oddness and characters’ reactions to it. And a whole book just like that would have been too much. But the book makes two big shifts along the way that kept me interested. Porter’s style works with the possibly magical nature of the plot, but I wouldn’t have wanted this to be any longer than it was.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Tara Jenkins Reid: I enjoy oral histories, so a whole novel that’s a made up oral history was extremely appealing to me, and I ended up enjoying this quite a lot. I especially enjoyed seeing the characters contradict each other. The story itself doesn’t offer any huge surprises, but I appreciated that it didn’t go for the most melodramatic and soapy storyline, choosing instead to focus on commitment and the different forms love takes. There is a bit of a gimmick toward the end that, to me, didn’t add anything to the story. And the supposedly brilliant song lyrics, interspersed throughout the book and collected at the end, didn’t impress me much. Maybe it would have been better to have left more of them to the imagination.

Everything Everything by Nicole Yoon: This was an entertaining, quick read. I especially enjoyed the way Yoon incorporated Maddy’s journal entries, emails, IMs, drawings, etc. It’s the kind of storytelling I frequently enjoy and it’s done well here. I had some minor issues with the premise early on, but most of those were resolved as the story went on; however, the resolution had the effect of also resolving the book’s central problem in a way that felt like a cheat designed to avoid the central problem of the book. 

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich: Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite writers, and I enjoyed this book about Father Damien Modeste. Father Damien is a priest to the Ojibwe, but he was born and woman and adopted his male persona almost by chance. Erdrich does some interesting things with gender here, using both male and female pronouns for Father Damien, depending on the moment and the priest’s state of mind. But Father Damien’s gender really isn’t the focus of the book. Instead, its the relationship the priest forms with the people and how they shape him. I was a little too fatigued when I read this to pick up all all the nuances, but that just gives me reason to revisit it someday.

The Wall by John Lanchester: This was an entertaining but not especially complex book about a world where borders are carefully monitored after a climate disaster (or series of disasters) has made resources scarce. The main character is, like everyone of his generation, assigned to serve as a guard on the wall, which is a tough life, but a temporary one. Despite it being about a Wall, it doesn’t particularly say much that’s new or revelatory about our current moment. People on both sides of the wall are people. Life is hard in a crisis. Etc. It is, however, a pretty decent adventure story, and I liked it on that level.

The Institute by Stephen King: More reliable entertainment from Stephen King. This book is about a group of kids who have telekinetic and telepathic powers are imprisoned in an institute where they are fed and housed and forced to undergo a bunch of tests until they are eventually taken to the “Back Half,” never to return. Luke, the central character, doesn’t have a lot of power, but he’s super-smart, and it’s fun to watch him work out what’s happening and develop a plan. There are some over-the-top moments along the way, but this was still sufficiently entertaining and often extremely suspenseful.

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What I Read This Summer/Fall: September Edition

Continuing my record of books I read while on blogging break. If you want to chat about any of these, please comment!

Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne: This book starts with the July 7 bombing in London and then goes back to Sri Lanka, where a little girl named Alice is growing up. She and her parents eventually flee the violence in Sri Lanka, but they find different kinds of struggles in London. This book didn’t make much of an impression on me, although it was interesting enough reading when I was in the midst of it. I remember being annoyed by the way the character of Simon (a white doctor) and the bombing were brought back into the novel at the end, but I have no recollection of why! (This is why blogging is so helpful.)

The Trespasser by Tana French: I’ve now finished the Dublin Murder Squad books, and they’re all so great. This is not at the top of my list, but I did really like it. In the character of Antoinette, French shows how being persecuted can really mess with your mind, making it impossible to trust anyone.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: I read this sequel to The Shining after seeing the trailer for the movie. King is such a reliable storyteller, and I liked this a lot, although it is very different from The Shining. The grown-up Dan is a fantastic character, as is Abra, the girl with the Shine that he takes under his wing.

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: So quirky. So unbearably quirky. I don’t know why I finished this. It had some funny scenes, and I guess whenever I was ready to quit, another good scene would pop up.

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge: The sequel to The Bird in the Treewhich I read years ago. These are such gentle, pleasant books about decent people striving to be decent. I couldn’t even stay too irritated at the way matriarch Lucilla manipulates the situation because it all turns out so well (but, seriously, don’t be like that). However, I was a little annoyed at time with how Goudge equated being in a forest (and loving being in a forest) with being close to God. I get that many people feel that way about forest, but I find them oppressive. I do, however, feel a lot of what she describes at the sea or the riverside. I think where that feeling comes about is very much a personal thing, but the way Goudge writes about it, it feels absolute, and I simply could not relate.

The Brontes by Juliet Barker: This is a magnificent biography that takes the whole family seriously. I learned so much. Barker does especially well at picking apart some of the myths related to the Brontes, showing how much is speculative and how much is outright unlikely. And she’s up-front about her own speculations, explaining why she comes to particular conclusions. The section about Anne and Charlotte’s simultaneous, but secret spiritual struggles was especially compelling. And the idea that Emily was so close to finishing a second book! My only complaint is that some of the early chapters about Branwell and Charlotte’s juvenalia were way too detailed. The Angria characters are written about as if they were actual people, and I didn’t care enough to even try to keep them straight. The Angria work is important to showing their development as writers and how they bounced off each other, but I did not need that level of detail. (And it made me glad there was less of Anne and Emily’s Gondal juvenalia to delve into in such detail.)

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What I Read This Summer: August Readings

Continuing my record of books I read while on blogging break. If you want to chat about any of these, please comment!

Stranger in the House by Julie Summers: A really informative book about how reuniting families in Great Britain coped after World War II. I especially appreciated the use of first-person narratives (journals, letters, interviews) of people from different walks of life. After a while, though, the stories started to blend together, even though Summers did try to organize the book in a way that set apart the different kinds of stories (sons returning to mothers, husbands returning to wives, etc.).

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman: This is a wonderful book about a nun who experiences visions that have inspired and moved people inside and outside her community. But she also suffers from painful headaches that, it turns out, could be both deadly and the source of her vision. So she has to figure out what this means for her relationship with God. Will removing the pain and saving her life also remove God’s voice?

Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson: First published in 1912, this book about a black man who is light-skinned enough to pass for white takes readers through many different parts of the both the black and the white communities of the early 20th century. A good story, well worth reading.

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Marquez: As 528 pages, this book was too long for me. But I did like how Marquez spun his web of conspiracy theories to pull readers into that mindset.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Horace McCoy. Short and devastating book about a dance marathon during the Great Depression. I saw the film version of this, starring Jane Fonda, years ago, and it always stuck with me. The book really gets into how desperation affects different people differently and how vulnerable people need more support during hard times.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews: A group of Mennonite women gather to decide what to do about the fact that some of the men of their community have been drugging and raping them at night, claiming it was demons. I really wish this book had stuck with me more. I remember that I found their deliberations interesting, but I don’t remember the specific arguments at all!

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: I loved Washington Black so much, and although I liked this, it didn’t quite live up to my hopes. I think I was in the mood for something more straightforward than this turned out to be. I did, however, appreciate the way the story came together at the end. And, like in Washington Black, Edugyan allows the relationships to be complex.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: One of my favorite books I read this summer. I loved it so much I had to give it its own review.

Posted in Fiction, History, Nonfiction | 6 Comments

What I Read This Summer: July Readings

Continuing my record of books I read while on blogging break. If you want to chat about any of these, please comment!

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: There was so much I loved about this book, but it didn’t come together as a whole for me. There was just too much going on, even when the individual elements were great in isolation. The two parts that really lost me were the book within a book and the voice of the 10-year-old character. I did like a lot of individual passages, and I was gripped by the wanderings of the son and daughter in the latter section of the book. But the experimental style tended to keep me at too much of a distance.

Final Payments by Mary Gordon: I really liked this book as I was reading it, but it has hardly stuck with me at all. I remember that it grappled with Catholicism in some interesting ways, and I appreciated that it showed how hard it can be to please yourself after years of pleasing others.

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynn Jones: The final book in the Howl’s Moving Castle series, although Howl and Sophie are not the main characters. Instead, it focuses on Charmain, a young woman who is looking after her great uncle’s cottage. I loved the world of the cottage and its many moving rooms

Ninepins by Rosy Thornton: A very good book about Laura, who rents out a house on her property to Willow, a young woman with a troubled past. As Willow and Beth, Laura’s daughter, become attached, Laura starts to worry about Willow’s influence. What’s great is that this is a story about decent, but imperfect people, all trying their best. They mess up sometimes, but they keep going, together.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson: I mean. It’s Kate Atkinson. It’s Jackson Brodie. And Reggie, a favorite character from When Will There Be Good News! Seeing Reggie again, doing so well, was a highlight. The crimes in this book, involving sex trafficking, are especially dark, but Atkinson manages to balance the horror and her particular brand of dark humor really well.

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol: I wish I liked this book more than I did. I loved getting the glimpse into the history of the Phillipines, and its intersection with the movie industry. But the way the book was structured was too much for my brain. I think it may have been a victim of timing, alas. I read it while my cat, Anya, was very sick (and ultimately put to sleep). I kept thinking I should switch to a different book, but my brain was incapable of making that decision, so I hung on even after I was clearly hopelessly lost.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: Such mixed feelings about this book! First, it gets credit for holding my attention after my cat died. Not many books could do that. And I liked the nature writing. The story itself was pretty absorbing, even so that I didn’t question how preposterous it was. Once I stepped back, I got irritated at the use of dialect to convey characters’ intelligence (or lack thereof). And I got distracted at how often the characters crossed the state to go to Asheville when other cities were much closer. Some frustrating racial stuff, too, with the black characters existing mostly to save the white lady at the center of the book. That part of the story could have been much worse, however, and it didn’t go in the direction that I was fearing toward the end, so that was a relief.

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What I Read This Summer: June Readings

Instead of attempting to review all the books I read while on my unplanned break, or leaving them entirely unrecorded, I’m going to do a series of posts with mini-reviews of what I read when I wasn’t blogging. If anyone is interested, I’m happy to chat more about any of these books in the comments.

King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett: I read this while in Scotland (my third read of the novel), because it seemed appropriate to read Dunnett in Scotland, and I didn’t want to take on a Lymond reread. Plus, this is my favorite of Dunnett’s books. It’s so complex that I pick up a little more each time, but it’s always emotionally satisfying. I’ll admit that I was a little less focused than I’d like, because I was traveling, but that also made a reread a good choice.

The Pisces by Melissa Broder: This is a completely wild story about a woman who falls in love with a merman. I happened to read it as I watched Fleabag, and I saw a lot of echoes in the way the main characters of the two stories used sex as a means of drowning out their anxieties.

Beside the Sea by Veronica Olmi: This is a devastating novella about a mother who can’t manage her life any more and is seeking one last grasp at joy. I kept hoping the book wouldn’t go where it went, although I had a sinking feeling all the way through. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who isn’t feeling emotionally strong.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: The story of the Trojan War from the point of view of Briseis, enslaved as a war prize by Achilles. I liked this a lot, not just because it provides a different angle on the well-known myth, but also because Briseis is allowed to have complex and contradictory feelings about her situation.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  This book is a hoot! The rare spinster novel without a hint of romance (hooray!). It starts out looking like a pretty standard tale of a put-upon spinster shaking herself free of family expectations and striking out on her own. And then it takes a turn.

Circe by Madeline Miller. Hard not to compare this with Silence of the Girls, since I read them so close together. I liked Silence a little more, but I still enjoyed this. I especially liked how cleverly Miller wove in so many different characters not necessarily associated with Circe and how she illuminated so many different ways of being a woman, especially in a world where women are all but erased from the stories.

Vanity Dies Hard by Ruth Rendell. This 1966 Rendell novel is a more traditional mystery/thriller than her later books. It’s a little dated (an unattractive 38-year-old woman married a younger, attractive man — shocker!), but it’s fun to watch the main character, Alice, follow the clues to her friend Nesta’s disappearance, only to become afraid that she herself is at risk.

Posted in Classics, Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 6 Comments

The Heaven Tree Trilogy

“You think you will be healed of your hell when you have made hell everywhere about you.”

One of the main heroes of Edith Pargeter’s Heaven Tree trilogy spoke these words to a villain who’d made it is mission to bring misery to all those who crossed him. And he succeeds in inflicting what looks to be unceasing pain on others, capturing not just their bodies but their minds and spirits — to an extent. But the beautiful thing about this book is that it shows that it is possible for those seeking to make a heaven everywhere about them can succeed.

Edith Pargeter is perhaps best known as Ellis Peters, the pseudonym she used when writing her Cadfael mysteries. This historical trilogy, however, was published under her own name, and it is an exciting and emotionally complex series, one that I’d especially recommend to fans of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels or Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter series.

The series is set mostly around the border between England and Wales in the early 13th century. The first novel, The Heaven Tree, follows the life and career of Harry Talvace, who was born to wealth but abandoned it when he came to understand the inherent unfairness of the system in which he lived, especially when it came to his best friend Adam, who was born a servant who lacks the rights Harry enjoys. Harry has a gift for carving stone, so he and Adam become stone masons, and their talents, especially Harry’s, are much sought after, and the novel traces how his loyalty and goodness both give him great power and put him under the power of others. The second novel, The Green Branch, tells the story of Harry’s son, also named Harry. This younger Harry becomes obsessed with the legacy of his father and wants to do whatever he can to honor his memory, a desire which gets him into his own form of trouble. The Scarlet Seed tells of the consequences of both Harry’s actions and the actions others took to help him.

One of the striking things about the characters in these novels, both good and evil, is how committed they are to honoring their word. When someone makes a pledge, they stick to it, no matter how preposterous the circumstance. (This includes voluntarily returning to a state of unjust captivity if allowed to go free temporarily.) I don’t know how accurate that is to the typical 13th-century mindset, but I appreciate that Pargeter was able to give the characters’ motivations that felt different from our own, yet also comprehensible. But it was so frustrating to see these characters acting in a way that was against their own interests and even, in a sense, the interests of their captors. Pargeter also allows the characters to question the system, as Harry questions the system that puts Adam under a more severe punishment than his own for the same offence. So the characters are different from modern characters, but they recognize clear injustice as they see it.

Perhaps the most fascinating character in the series is Ralf Isambard, who employs Harry in The Heaven Tree to build a great church. (To describe him as he evolves through the series, I’ll have to spoil the first book to some degree, although I will try to keep the details vague.)

Isambard is the chief antagonist of the series, and his evil acts are indeed vile. There’s a sequence of events toward the end of The Heaven Tree that involves extreme cruelty and torture that arose not out of a wrong-headed system of “justice” but simply out of personal malevolence. He’s a nasty piece of work. Yet, in subsequent books, he draws people in. He does so not by becoming good or denying what he’s done in the past. And he doesn’t win allies exactly. He is not well liked at all. But Harry, as well as Isambard’s former mistress, Benedetta, end up feeling a sense of grudging loyalty and respect for him. It’s all rolled up in the morality of making and honoring vows. It gives everyone a system for relating to each other, so that everyone knows where they stand. And, in the end, having that system allows relationships to happen that keep the world from becoming the hell that Isambard seems to seek in the quote above. (Benedetta, incidentally, is a great character, and the dramatic evolution of her character is almost as great as that of Isambard.)

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the conflict between Llywelyn the Great, Henry III, and others in the Welsh Marches. Llywelyn is, in fact, a major character in the series, I know nothing at all about this history, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book (although I did consult Wikipedia to get my bearings a bit.) The central drama of the series is the personal one, and the history is relevant only as it touches the decisions characters have to make. It’s not a book about the history, but about the people living in that time.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

A non-binding review catch-up poll and opportunity to chat in comments

As I mentioned in my review of The Book of Strange New Things, I have no intention to review the books I read this summer, although I may write a bit about some of them if I feel inspired. I thought I’d see if there are any particular books you all would love to hear my thoughts on, so I’ve made a poll listing what I read. No guarantees that I’ll follow the poll results, but it may help me set priorities if I decide I feel like writing a review. I’m reading a very long book right now, Edith Pargeter’s Heaven Tree trilogy, so I might decide I want to write something just to take a break from that.

I’m also happy to chat about any of these books in the comments, so if you want to ask what I thought about any of them there, please do. You can also see my star ratings and some brief reviews on Goodreads.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Book of Strange New Things

While I was on my extended, unplanned blogging break, I read a bunch of books, most of which I have no intention to write about. I either don’t have much to say or have forgotten too much about them to have much of value to say, but I do have to say something about one of the best books I read this summer, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. 

The book’s premise is similar to that of Mary Doria Russell’s brilliant novel, The Sparrow, although Faber takes the premise in completely different directions. The book’s main character is Peter, an evangelical minister who is recruited by a private space company to come to their outpost on a planet called Oasis to preach to the beings who live there. He is excited about the opportunity to share the gospel, which has made such a difference in his own life, with beings who’ve never had the chance to learn about it. His only regret is that he’ll be leaving behind his wife, Beatrice, who is arguably the more intelligent and pious half of the couple. It will only be for a short time, though, and they both agree that it’s important work.

When he arrives, he finds that he is warmly welcomed by the Oasians, who’ve already heard a bit about Jesus and want to learn more. However, spending large amounts of time with them, in their isolated town, means being away from the technology that allows him to communicate with Beatrice. Beatrice, meanwhile, is suffering on an Earth that is experiencing the very same climate and economic crises that a lot of us these days fear. She’s on her own on a world falling apart, and her messages to Peter gave me a knot in my stomach. Peter, well, his responses are not so great.

One of things I loved about this book was how well Faber captured the mindset of a certain kind of sincere, decent Evangelical Christian. Peter does not necessarily represent all Christians, or even all Evangelicals, but everything about him made sense to me. Peter sincerely cares about the Oasian people and about his wife, but all of his caring occurs within a strict structure. When things happen that fall outside his expectations, he doesn’t know how to express his love and care in that moment. He doesn’t lack love, but his love is limited, formulaic even.

Peter’s way of loving is unable to tackle complications. When Beatrice expresses despair at what the world is coming to, he responds with platitudes. When the Oasians express curiosity about certain aspects of the Jesus story and ignore others, it doesn’t occur to him to ask why. Peter is also rather selfish and unable to step outside his own frame of reference, which further limits his ability to love effectively. (Here, Christianity may have been good for him because it gave him clear instructions on a way to love.) At the end, he makes choices that seem to him to be loving, but may well be the opposite of what anyone wants or needs.

The part of the story that dug at my emotions was that of Beatrice. She’s living my own (and others’) nightmares, so if you choose to read this be prepared for that. But the story of the Oasians dug at my mind. There’s a lot that’s left ambiguous about their interest in Jesus, but some of it has to do with the way they experience sickness, injury, and death. People from Earth bring them medicine and story of a man who can heal the sick and who came back from death. But how does this all fit together for them? And is Peter’s way of reaching out to them helpful or damaging in the long term? I don’t think the answers to any of these questions are clear, and I appreciate that, as I appreciated the whole book.

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